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Video of 73-year-old boarded up inside his apartment sparks investigation

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Video of 73-year-old boarded up inside his apartment sparks investigation
AP
SOPHIA TAREEN
January 08, 2024

HARVEY, Ill. (AP) — Rudolph Williams says he was home in a Chicago suburb when he realized the doors and windows to his courtyard-style apartment had been boarded up with plywood, locking him inside.

“I didn’t know exactly what was going on,” the 73-year-old said Monday in describing how he tried to open his blocked door. “What the hell?”

His story — chronicled by his nephew on now-viral videos — has generated a firestorm of criticism about rental conditions at the dilapidated low-income apartment complex in Harvey, Illinois. People are also debating who's to blame; and Mayor Christopher Clark has promised an investigation.

City officials, residents, property owners and the property management company have conflicting accounts about what happened Friday at the 30-unit complex roughly 30 miles (48.28 kilometers) south of Chicago.

It started that afternoon when crews without any logos on their clothing or vehicles started boarding up units. Residents say they weren’t warned and that the workers ignored residents telling them people were still inside. City officials say police were on site earlier in the day and performed well-being checks, but not when units were set to be boarded up. The property owners say the tenants claims about residents being boarded inside are false, and the property managers say the units were empty before they started boarding up units at the city's direction.

No injuries were reported.

Genevieve Tyler, who said she was recently laid off from her meat factory job, was home when she heard noises outside and ran for a second door in her apartment looking to escape because she thought it was a break-in. That's when she said she came upon crews boarding up her windows.

“I feel sick,” she said, adding that she was too scared to return home for two days. “I’m still sad.”

The complex, which is in clear disrepair, has been on the city’s radar for months.

One of the two buildings has no heat, with residents using stoves and space heaters to keep warm. A set of stairs has collapsed and is blocked to pedestrians. There is garbage everywhere: broken furniture, a large dumbbell and liquor bottles.

There have also been numerous safety issues involving drugs and crime. Police were called to the property more than 300 times last year, according to Harvey Police Chief Cameron Biddings.

City officials say the property owners, identified by the city as Jay Patel and Henry Cho, were warned about the unsafe conditions and urged to make changes. The owners were then notified that people had to evacuate by Oct. 28 and had to let residents know.

However, only some residents say they got the message. Others who were notified say they were skeptical of the documents' legitimacy. Some got letters on official city letterhead saying they had to leave due to the safety risk, while others received papers from the property managers that said the building would be shut down.

James Williams, Rudolph’s nephew, who lives with him at the property, said a bunch of notices were strewn around the courtyard.

He and other people on site helped free his uncle from the apartment Friday evening, partly by using a drill, he said.

In a joint statement emailed late Monday, the property owners dismissed the residents' “viral allegations.” The owners said they tried to negotiate more time with the city for renters to stay and aimed to have required repairs finished by March for the building to reopen.

The owners hired property management company, Chicago Style Management, in November.

Tim Harstead with Chicago Style Management disputed Williams' account, saying crews found one unauthorized person who left before they started boarding up units.

“A lot of people in that area are squatters and trying to stay there,” he said.

On Monday, Mayor Clark and other city officials toured the complex, which lies off a busy street in the community of 20,000.

In a series of interviews, Clark reluctantly acknowledged that people were still inside their units when the apartments started being shuttered, but he said he wanted to hear directly from residents rather than via social media videos.

The city played no role in boarding up the apartments, he said, pledging that city police would investigate and might turn the matter over to the state’s attorney or Illinois attorney general. Criticism of the city on social media was misdirected, he said.

“It’s horrible,” Clark said. “What’s even more horrible is the fact that they would attribute that to people who are trying to actually help the situation versus the people who actually put them in this situation.”

At least one city official, Alderman Tyrone Rogers, told media outlets over the weekend that residents' claims were a “total exaggeration.” He did not return messages Monday from The Associated Press.

Some residents, including 34-year-old Loren Johnson, left last month. He said the shutdown notice scared him off as did the broken heating and criminal activity.

“They don’t do anything, but they take full rent,” he said of the landlords.

Roughly half a dozen residents remained on Monday, saying they look out for each other.

Mary Brooks, 66, lives in one of the few apartments that wasn’t boarded up.

She described herself as a cancer survivor with mental health issues who has nowhere else to go. She also said she has tried to reach city officials multiple times about the complex over her nearly four years of living there, a complaint she shared with the mayor when he visited her at home Monday.

“Nobody pays attention to the poor,” she said. “Nobody cares until something happens.”

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